Gather your share of shellfish as plenty of spring-time choices are blossoming on nearby beaches
Sitting on the fringes of land and sea is a healthy population of clams, mussels and oysters
This is the time of the year when shellfish fanatics like to “shellibrate” a growing list of places to go in Puget Sound and Hood Canal.
The excitement also stems from stable shellfish populations, daylight low tides, and oysters in good condition tied to the cold water — plus it’s more outdoor fun and provides an alternative to a seafood market.
“The beauty of spring is water quality tends to be better, but I caution people to always check the Department of Health’s (DOH) shellfish safety map before going,” said Camille Speck, the Washington Department of Fish Wildlife (WDFW) Puget Sound intertidal shellfish manager.
“Beaches are usually a lot less crowded at this time of the year,” Speck said. “In the spring some of these boots are the first to hit the beaches in quite some time, giving them the first chance at clams or freshly shucked oysters.”
Most locations are relatively easy to get to, public access is plentiful, and you can discover great shellfish beaches along the northern I-5 corridor of Puget Sound, in eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, Whidbey Island and Hood Canal.
You’ll find beaches near you, as well as whether they’re open or closed for recreational shellfish harvest, at WDFW’s website. Harvesters are asked to park only in designated areas, and to be aware of where public land ends and private property begins.
Where to go
Here are beaches Speck recommends during spring:
Northern Puget Sound region
- In Whatcom County, Drayton Harbor is open year-round and underused for Manila clams. The best location to gather clams is near the northern end of the beach. There is a narrow band of oyster beds that can even be found during high tide.
- Birch Bay State Park in Whatcom County is open year-round for shellfish and is a good site for butter clams when tides are lower than minus one foot. Manila clams can be found high up on the beach, and access extends to the park boundary on the eastern side. Hop over the berm and the initial 100 to 200 feet is a great Manila and native littleneck clam beach with some scattered oyster beds.
- On Whidbey Island in Holmes Harbor is Freeland County Park — open through May 31 — and decent for Manila clams. As of March 17, it is currently closed for butter and Varnish clams due to public health standards. Always check the DOH website before you go. Manila clams are located about midway down the beach, and as you face the water stay on the left side of the dock.
- Twin Lagoons (open year-round for clams, mussels and oysters) and West Penn Cove (open July 15 through Aug. 31) are located at the head of Penn Cove on Whidbey Island. The uplands above Twin Lagoons are private property. Use the Mueller’s/Madrona Road access to walk to Twin Lagoons. Twin Lagoons begins as soon as you pass under the dock that extends across the beach from the Captain Whidbey Inn. The walk is rocky and steep but passable. Penn Cove beaches provide excellent cockle and butter clam foraging opportunities however, this area is currently closed for butter and varnish clams due to biotoxins.
When it opens for harvest later this year, West Penn Cove is a known performer for restaurant quality mussels although some didn’t survive last summer’s heatwave. Look for mussels on the shady side of boulders. Mussels are also abundant on the rocky points of Twin Lagoons. West Penn Cove provides access to two planted oyster beds located near the Mueller’s access. The most abundant oyster bed is just north of the parking area, to the north of where a small stream drains across the intertidal area.
- On the northern tip of Marrowstone Island is Fort Flagler State Park where the clam digging window is open now through April 15 and July 1 through Dec. 31. Harvest opportunities are centered on decent numbers of native littleneck, butter and horse clams found in the low spot between the mainland and the Rat Island wildlife preserve. Small pockets of Manila clams and eastern softshell, and abundant varnish clams are found near the Kilisut Harbor boat ramp and along the southern side of the mainland spit. In some of the sandy parts of the beach located on the Kilisut Harbor side, geoduck may be dug on a minus two-foot or lower tide.
- The Port Townsend Ship Canal/Portage Canal and Indian Island County Park are two early fall choices to keep on your radar from Sept. 1–30 only.
“We have some great low tides during the first two weeks in September,” Speck said. “It is unusual for the month of September to see such good low tides.”
These beaches both provide butter clam harvesting opportunities. Manila clams can be found off the main access area for Indian Island County Park. The main access area is marked by the public restroom and picnic area.
Hood Canal region
- A new location that is a real win for recreational shellfish gatherers in Hood Canal is Hahobas, which is open year-round for clams and oysters. This new public boat access only location is loaded with oysters that are attached to rocks and in clusters. It is a rocky and steep beach so digging can be difficult, but the cobble substrate has butter clams and native littlenecks at lower tidal elevations. A potato fork is a great harvesting tool for cobble beaches. The uplands are private property, please avoid trespassing. The southern and northern boundaries are not marked. Harvesters are encouraged to stay closer to the center of the beach as displayed on the Washington shellfish safety map. You can find boat ramps on the western side of Hood Canal and the nearest is Cushman Park (fees apply).
- Potlatch State Park/Potlatch DNR in southern Hood Canal is open from April 1 through May 15 only. The State Park is excellent for oysters with extensive beds in the stretch of beach near the highway, and north and east of Enetai Creek as the shoreline turns east. The best clam digging on the state park is on the large tideflats east of Enetai Creek, where Manila clams are abundant. Potlatch DNR is good for butter clams, and some Manila and native littleneck clams. Eastern softshell and varnish clams are usually found in the mid- and upper-intertidal zones. Access to the Potlatch beaches is from the State Park’s Day-Use parking lot. It is illegal to park along the shoulder of the highway. A willingness to walk a little farther to the tideflats along the southern shore will result in the best clamming experience.
- The Quilcene Bay WDFW Tidelands is open year-round for harvest with a good crop of Manila clams (minimum size for clams is 1 ½ inches). New signage has been posted to show where the extensive public tidelands are located. In addition to the western edge of the bay, you can access more excellent Manila clam foraging grounds farther out on the tideflats of the bay. Avoid a private shellfish farm (marked with white fiberglass posts and concrete blocks) in the middle of the beach. Oysters are sparsely scattered across the western edge of the beach. There are two asphalt pads at the access point. Follow the trail from the southern pad to reach the shellfish beds. Do not try to cross through the dangerous mud below the northern part.
- In Hood Canal, Duckabush is a productive location for Manila clams and Pacific oysters and open now through April 30. Native littleneck clams are not as abundant as Manila clams. The mid-intertidal zone is a sand and gravel substrate. Look for butter, cockles, and horse clams along the lower intertidal zone in sand and mud. The fabled geoduck can be found in scattered areas during a minus two-foot or lower tide. Avoid parking along Highway 101 for safety reasons. Visit the Duckabush beach page for a description of the parking area and recommended trail. Respect private property where you can’t gather shellfish without the owner’s permission.
- Be sure to venture to Dosewallips State Park, which is one of the big performers for public access. It is open year-round for oysters and July 1 through Sept. 30 for clams. Manila and native littleneck clams are abundant and located in the mid-upper tidal zone. Clams can be found around and among oysters, an area often overlooked by diggers. Please take care not to bury oysters while digging clams. This is a very popular site for geoduck seekers in the low inter-tidal area during a minus two-foot or lower tide. The southern part, which is marked by a row of fiberglass posts, is closed year-round by the DOH as shellfish are not fit for human consumption. It is very common to see elk in the salt marsh and parking areas of this park.
- Lilliwaup State Park is an undeveloped park located just north of the community of Lilliwaup on Highway 101. This long stretch of shoreline is open year-round for clam and oyster harvest. At the south end of the beach there is a large highway turnout with a set of stairs that leads to the beach. At the north end, there is a short, steep trail with a hand rope that leads to the beach. Parking is available at the highway turnout. Although digging can be challenging, butter clams are common in the rocky cobble.
- Eagle Creek north of Lilliwaup off Highway 101 is an excellent year-round oyster gathering spot. There is a very short, steep trail to the beach. Parking is limited to one or two spaces or along the shoulder of the highway. Use extreme caution when parking along the highway shoulder. The clamming season is July 1 through August 31, and provides access to Manila, native littleneck, and butter clams. In past years, some geoducks have been taken during tides that are minus two foot or lower.
- Another year-round oyster area is the Triton Cove Tidelands. The dirt parking lot for this beach is located about ¼-mile north of Triton Cove State Park, before crossing the Fulton Creek bridge. The tidelands used to be a commercial “oyster farm” and oysters are known to remain in good condition throughout the summer. There are some pockets of Manila native littleneck and butter clams available during the clam season from June 1 through Aug. 31. Stakes and rope mark the boundary of private beaches on either side of the public land.
- An excellent spring-time oyster beach is Twanoh State Park, located south of Belfair and open year-round for oysters. The clamming season at this park is Aug. 1 through Sept. 30. The oyster beds can be found on either side of the boat ramp in the day-use portion of the park. The historic park offers year-round camping, boat moorage, a launching ramp, woodland trails, and swimming and picnic areas.
- During summer, make plans to visit Belfair State Park in Mason County — open July 15 through Sept. 30 — which is an excellent oyster beach.
Southern and central Puget Sound region
- There are several places along the western fringes of southern Puget Sound, like North Bay in Case Inlet. Despite abundant shellfish resources, parking is very limited at this popular beach. The lot holds less than 25 vehicles, and it is illegal to park along the highway. Plan to arrive early and have an alternative harvest site in mind if the lot is full. The harvesting season is open now through April 30 and reopens Sept. 1–30 with harvest allowed during daylight hours only. The beach has enhanced oyster beds, excellent numbers of Manila clams and more limited numbers of native littlenecks. Some of the best digging can be found along 1600 feet of shoreline running south of the power line towers near the access trail. Other than the parking lot, uplands are privately owned and there is no direct access to the beach across private lands. Nearby alternative harvest locations are Oakland Bay Tidelands, Belfair State Park, or Twanoh State Park.
- The Oakland Bay Tidelands north of Shelton is a decent year-round spot for mostly Manila clams and oysters that can be found in mixed gravel and mud. The beach doesn’t require a big low tide and clams can be found higher up thus avoiding the sticky black mud in the low intertidal areas.
- Located 8-miles north of Olympia is Tolmie State Park, open year-round for clams and oysters. The beach doesn’t support abundant clam populations but a planted oyster bed offers a great opportunity to shuck delicious Pacific oysters.
- Just east of Bremerton lies Illahee State Park, open for clams and oysters from April 1 through July 31. Harvesting opportunities are focus on an enhanced oyster bed near the dock. Although clams are not abundant, some can be found.. Visit the park’s wooded area with many other amenities including picnic areas, kitchen shelters, year-round camping, a dock and boat ramp, a fire circle, horseshoe pits, a softball and volleyball fields and a children’s play area.
When you go
Be sure to visit the DOH shellfish safety map on the same day you plan to harvest shellfish. Water quality conditions can change quickly, so it is critical to check for health updates. The DOH shellfish safety map is an easy one-stop-shop for WDFW harvesting seasons and DOH water quality information, The map provides an easy to navigate search tool to locate the precise beach you want to view or to prospect for new harvesting locations. You can also find shellfish season harvesting and water quality information on beach-specific webpages found through the search tool on the WDFW shellfish webpage. The shellfish safety map and WDFW beach pages link to each other through several pathways at the beach-specific level but it is easier to use the map when searching for new areas.
Keep in mind all eastern mainland beaches of Puget Sound from Everett south to just north of Steilacoom are closed for shellfish gathering due to unsafe pollution levels.
Many public beaches have no upland entrance and must be accessed by boat. Please avoid trespass and respect adjacent privately owned tidelands and uplands.
To see when the optimal spring low tides occur, click on the WDFW tide chart webage. Ideal upcoming low tide dates are — March 22–28; April 3–8; April 16–25; April 29-May 7; May 14–22; and May 27-June 6.
Be sure to follow shellfish harvesting rules that include daily limits, and gathering etiquette such as filling-in holes, shucking oysters, and leaving the oyster shells on the beach where you found them. These are codified harvesting rules and can be ticketed if not observed. Please take care not to bury oysters when digging clams. Sand and gravel can smother oysters buried beneath digging piles. Look for firmer ground when digging clams and be cautious of muddy areas.
Shellfish gatherers age 15 to 69 must have a valid WDFW shellfish/seaweed or combination harvesting license. To find more information on licenses visit the WDFW licensing webpage.
A Discover Pass — $30 annual and $10 day-use — is required for parking in more than 100 developed Washington State Parks; nearly 700 water-access points; nearly 2,000 miles of designated water and land recreation trails; more than 110 natural and wildlife areas; and more than 350 undeveloped state park recreation lands including campgrounds and picnic areas. Go to the Discover Pass website for details.
You can also find a great WDFW Medium blog post about oysters. This post was featured as part of the American Heart Association’s Heart Health Month Campaign in February. The blog included a wealth of information on oyster history, where to gather and buy oysters, plus recipes from two local chefs, Washington Sea Grant, and the Seafood Nutrition Partnership.